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SJC Rules that Law Reducing Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenders is Retroactive

stock-photo-11434573-prison-hands-2.jpgIn August 2012, the Massachusetts legislature passed the 2012 crime bill, which had both a positive and negative impact on the law. On the one hand, the bill amended sentencing for violent criminal offenses, creating the “three strikes” rule. This rule means that offenders that are convicted of certain violent offenses two or more times, and sentenced to 3 years or more in state prison on each of those convictions, now face life without parole if convicted a third time as a result of this bill. On the other hand, the bill reduced the minimum mandatory sentences associated with various drug crimes, and reduced the size of “school zone” violations, which carry enhanced penalties for drug crimes committed near a school, from 1000′ to 300′ from the school.

While the decreases in minimum mandatory sentences were undoubtedly a positive change, some uncertainty remains about the bill’s impact on the law. For example, anyone who was charged with a drug offense after the bill was passed will clearly benefit from the amendments to the law. But what about people charged prior to August 2012, but convicted after the passage of the law? And what about people serving sentences for drug offenses or school zone charges at the time the law was passed? There are many questions remaining in regard to people falling into these categories.

On August 23, 2013, the Supreme Judicial Court answered one of these questions in Commonwealth v. Galvin. In Galvin, the defendant was charged with selling cocaine to an undercover officer. The sale took place on June 3, 2011. The defendant was subsequently indicted for distribution of a class B substance, and for being a subsequent offender (i.e., having a previous conviction for distribution, or possession with intent to distribute). At the time the indictment was issued, the minimum mandatory sentence associated with the subsequent offender charge was 5 years. Therefore, if the defendant were convicted, the judge would have no choice but to sentence him to at least 5 years, and up to ten, in state prison.

The 2012 crime bill amended the law while the defendant’s case was pending, reducing the minimum mandatory sentence associated with his charge to 3.5 years. Specifically, on August 22, 2012, ten days after the bill was passed, the defendant went to trial on the charges and was convicted. The Commonwealth asked the court to impose the mandatory minimum sentence associated with the earlier version of the law – 5 years. The court declined to do so and imposed the minimum mandatory sentence associated with the amended version – 3.5 years. The Commonwealth claimed that the sentence was illegal and appealed.


The Supreme Judicial Court held that the trial judge was correct in sentencing the defendant to the minimum mandatory sentence associated with the amended law. The court noted that amendments to statutes are typically prospective – in other words, an amended statute is not usually retroactive and only applies to cases initiated after the amendment has passed. The court also noted, however, that this rule does not apply where a lack of retroactivity would cause a result that is inconsistent with the intent of the law. The court determined that one of the main purposes of the 2012 amendment was to reduce the sentences of those facing mandatory minimums associated with drug related charges. The court stated that in light of this purpose, it would be “anamolous, if not absurd” to conclude that the legislature did not intend to provide reductions for everyone charged with such offenses, including those charged prior to the passage of the amendments, but convicted afterward, and therefore, the 3.5 year sentence was proper. While there are still many unanswered questions about the impact that the 2012 crime bill will have, through Commonwealth v. Galvin, the Supreme Judicial Court has made it clear that those who were charged prior to the enactment of the 2012 crime bill, but convicted and sentenced after its passage, are entitled to the benefit of the new, lower mandatory minimums.

If you or a loved one has faced or is facing a minimum mandatory sentence associated with a drug related charge, you will need an experienced and skilled defense attorney to assess the impact of the amended statute on your case. Attorney Daniel Cappetta can explain the current state of the law, discuss how it might apply to your case, and clarify what issues have yet to be answered by the courts. Call today for a free consulation.

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